Taking a 2+ Year Vacation from English Language Fiction

I recently discovered the Tempest Challenge, which is to stop reading fiction by straight white cis men who write in English for an entire year.

Before the ‘Tempest Challenge’ existed, I had actually done this myself. In fact I took it a few steps further – for a period of 2+ years, I only read fiction written in Chinese (with the exception of webcomics). The vast majority of that fiction was originally in Chinese, but I also read some Japanese-to-Chinese and Korean-to-Chinese translations. All of this fiction was by East Asians, which meant that I also happened to stop reading fiction by white people during this period.

Why did I do this? Mainly because I wanted to improve my Chinese, and to get good at reading Chinese, one has to get a lot of practice. And I didn’t want to read English-to-Chinese translations since I can read the originals in English.

This immersion experience definitely changed the way I think and perceive the world. Some of the changes were obvious at the time, whereas I am only gradually noticing some of the other changes years later.

For example, when I made up stories in my head to amuse myself, the characters tended to be white people. Since I’m a white person myself, that was not surprising. However, after a year or two of my immersion in Chinese fiction, the characters who appeared in my head-stories tended to be Asian, not white, by default. It wasn’t any conscious process or decision on my part, it’s just what seemed most natural to my imagination at the time. Now that I’m back in the United States and taking in a lot of fiction by white people, the characters in my head-stories are now mostly white people again, but … I am impressed that all it took for my imagination to shift that way was to just limit myself to Chinese-language fiction for a couple years (okay, the fact that I was living in a city with very few white people, where I could go weeks without seeing another white person, might have had something to do with it too).

As far as the subtler effects which I am only noticing later … a lot of that comes up when I am reading English-language fiction. English speakers tend to think in a way which is a bit different than the way Chinese speakers think (a lot of this is cultural), and things which I would have never noticed before now leap out at me as being a specifically English-speaker kind of thing. It’s hard to describe some of this stuff, because a lot it is me getting a feeling but not knowing how to explain it in words.

All and all, I think this was very good for me. This experience definitely expanded my imagination and perceptiveness (not to mention that a lot of Chinese language fiction is fun to read). And I think that I went really hardcore – as in, I refused to read English-language fiction (except webcomics) or even fiction which originated in English for years – made the experience much deeper than if I had simply stopped reading fiction by cis-het-white-males for a year.

I don’t think I’ll do anything like this again in my life, or even do the Tempest Challenge, but I think I would benefit by reading more fiction by a) people who are neither white nor East Asian b) queer people and c) disabled people.

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3 thoughts on “Taking a 2+ Year Vacation from English Language Fiction

  1. I haven’t done anything close as radical as that, but I’m trying to read more novels written by women, queer persons and persons of color, and I’ve found my horizon and imagination has expanded since then, which had a noticeable impact on my writing.

    • Well, you have learned a foreign language (English) and read many novels in that language. And I have had almost no exposure to German fiction (the only German novel I am certain I have read – in translation of course – is Siddhartha by Herman Hesse).

  2. Pingback: Speculative Fiction by Black Women I Read in 2016 | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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